A former Canadian university student has changed his mind and pleaded guilty to killing six men who were praying in a Quebec City mosque in January 2017, averting a trial in one of the country’s rare mass shootings.
Members of the city’s Muslim community who were in the courtroom sobbed on Wednesday as the judge confirmed Alexandre Bissonnette’s guilty plea and declared him guilty on six counts of first-degree murder and six counts of attempted murder.
More than 50 people were at the Quebec City Islamic cultural center, also known as the Grande Mosquée de Québec, when the shooting began during evening prayers.
Six men aged between 39 and 60 were killed and another 18 wounded.
Speaking to the courtroom, Bissonnette asked the victims’ families for forgiveness and said he decided to plead guilty to spare them the hardship of a trial.
“I would like to ask forgiveness for all that I have done,” he said. “If at least by pleading guilty I can do a little good in all this, that would be something.”
Bissonnette did not explain why he had targeted the mosque but said he had held “suicidal thoughts” and an “obsession” with death. “I am not a terrorist, nor an Islamophobe,” he said.
Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, initially described the shooting as a terrorist attack, although prosecutors did not charge Bissonnette with terrorism.
Bissonnette had told the court on Monday afternoon that he wanted to change his plea, but superior court justice François Huot ordered a psychiatric assessment of the accused to ensure he fully understood the consequences. Huot also placed a publication ban on the proceedings.
When the judge asked him on Monday if he was fully aware of what he was doing, Bissonnette replied: “Yes.”
Huot asked Bissonnette whether he knew he would be getting a life sentence and he answered: “I understand.”
Huot also asked him if he understood he could receive consecutive sentences, meaning 150 years of prison. “I know,” Bissonnette replied, in a low voice.
Jury selection had been scheduled to start on 3 April and the trial to last two months. Sentencing arguments will now take place at a later date.
Amir Belkacemi, whose 60-year-old father Khaled Belkacemi was killed, said he was glad that the community would be spared the trauma of reliving the attack during a trial.
“That the trial won’t have to take place, it’s a good thing for us, it’s a good thing for everyone in the community,” Amir Belkacemi, the son of victim Khaled Belkacemi, told reporters. “Very relieved.”
At the time of the attack, Bissonnette was a student in the social sciences faculty at Laval University. He was described by aquaintances as a “far-right and an ultra-nationalist white supremacist”, and a supporter of French far-right leader Marine Le Pen and Donald Trump.
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